Over the last fortnight or so, there’s been a little tiff in the Glamorgan Gazette between Carwyn Jones (in his capacity as Bridgend AM) and Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) over the current state of Bridgend town centre – things like shop vacancies etc.
It’s not only them to be fair. It’s a perennial “hot topic” in the letters section, with various arguments between contributors. There was a notable, detailed one involving Conservative town councillor David Unwin recently.
Suzy placed the blame squarely at the (Labour-run) council and the Welsh Government, questioning whether we’re getting value for council taxpayers’ money as well as Welsh Government policy on reviving the high street. She’s also campaigned against things like moving Bridgend library recently and highlighted Welsh Conservative’s own plans for reviving high streets.
Carwyn hit back by saying the general state of the (Conservative-Lib Dem run) economy was to blame, as well as more specific problems with Bridgend town centre itself, notably the absence of a major department store. He also claimed that the rainbow coalition – that ran Bridgend Council between 2004-2008 and included Conservatives – “didn’t do anything for Bridgend.”
But he also posed the question – what can be done to help town centres like Bridgend?
What are the issues in Bridgend town centre?
It’s a “Welsh thing” to talk down your hometown. I’d probably describe myself as having a “love hate” relationship with the town. There are plenty of good things about Bridgend, and quite a few things that drive me up the wall. I could write twenty blogs on that, so I’ll stick to the issue of the town centre for now.
I lean towards Carwyn’s arguments on this.
The town centre itself is very compact, with a medieval street layout ill-suited to 21stCentury needs. Many town centre buildings are Georgian – so they’re quite tall, but not very wide – that means shops and offices tend to have small floor spaces which major retailers and employers are reluctant to take up. For example, Bridgend (town centre) lost its McDonalds in 2006 because, as I understand it, the building was too decrepit – and it’s remained vacant ever since.
I think Carwyn’s spot on about the lack of a major department store, as well as lack of office workers in the town centre (except Bridgend Council itself). Big stores and offices drive footfall. There were (mooted) plans for a major redevelopment of the Rhiw Centre around 2003-2004 on the scale of something like Eagles Meadow in Wrexham. That would’ve included a department store on the Rhiw Car Park site, but the chances of that happening now are zilch due to the economy.
There’ve clearly been mistakes with regard various regeneration and traffic schemes, but on the whole, I don’t think the town centre is anywhere near as bad as made out.
I remember what Bridgend was like in the early 90s (pre-pedestrianisation). The traffic in the town centre was, at times, awful to the point of being dangerous. It looked busier, but that doesn’t mean it actually was in terms of trade. I think people have short memories, or are looking back at things through rose-tinted glasses.
The problem is that Ogwr/BCBC probably went too far in the opposite direction when only Adare Street and Wyndham Street needed to be pedestrianised. The rest of the town centre could easily have been “shared surface”with lower speed limits.
With regard the night-time economy, Bridgend can be deceptively rough, though things have improved thanks to various police and council initiatives. I believe there are far too many takeaways in close proximity to each other, whilst Bridgend probably has Soho levels of pubs/clubs-per-square mile. I don’t think there’s enough of a mix between rowdier/livelier establishments and sedate ones. Both have their place though. I wouldn’t want Bridgend to end up some poncy wannabe Cowbridge.
Are there enough car park spaces in the town centre? Has the provision of ample free parking at out of town sites affected things? Why would anyone go to the town centre when they can park for free and shop at Waterton or McArthurGlen Designer Outlet?
It’s all well looking back on things with hindsight, but what would Bridgend be like now if McArthurGlen were built, for example, at Brackla Street & Cheapside instead of Junction 36? Ashford’s McArthurGlen is almost right next to its town centre, for example.
On the economic/political side of things, I think both Carwyn and Suzy make valid points. We’ve changed our shopping habits and might look to the internet more to make purchases than local shops. It might be cheaper for retailers and customers too. There is the perennial issue of business rates, but it’s unclear what sort of reforms will come from the Welsh Government and when – despite Edwina Hart’s (Lab, Gower) review and the recent decision to delay to business rate revaluations until 2017.
What does Bridgend town centre have going for it?
I pointed out small stores as being a disadvantage, however there’s benefits too. There’s quite a vibrant independent store scene in Bridgend, presumably because rents and business rates for smaller town centre stores are attractive. The issue is turnover of these stores, as well as long-term vacancies. The various events and festivals in the town centre also compliment this.
Take sweets for example. As well as the supermarkets, you can
now choose between imported American sweets at Candy Shack on Caroline Street, or go for traditional home made sweets at Riley’s on Nolton Street. There are quite a few independent restaurants and cafes. Bridgend doesn’t have a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee and I doubt many towns are in a position to say that. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is up to you.
Public transport links are also pretty good. Both the bus station and railway station are centrally located. It’s a shame there’s going to be a delay to the bus-rail interchange as that would’ve improved things further. Remember my point further up about building McArthur Glen on Brackla Street when taking that into account.
The southern half of Bridgend county is relatively well-off, and Bridgend’s shopping catchment area extends into the wealthy western half of the Vale of Glamorgan. This has been pointed out in various studies. So there probably is a viable consumer base in the town for stores targeting financially secure, middle-class shoppers. You wouldn’t think that judging by the existing store offer, especially compared to similar sized towns. People may simply be opting for Cardiff or McArthurGlen.
I think one underestimated feature is the architecture too. Most of Bridgend’s best architecture is above ground floor level. As I said earlier, quite a bit of it is Georgian, mixed with Victorian and Edwardian. There are at least 30 Grade II listed buildings in the town centre alone. There’ve been various schemes to protect and enhance them – especially around Dunraven Place – and I think it’s improved the attractiveness of the town centre ten fold. It’s just a question of getting people and businesses back.
What can be done?
In fairness, quite a bit is being done.
One of my first blogs was on a Bridgend Council masterplan, drawn up by Powell Dobson, that will form a key part of Bridgend County’s Local Development Plan (which is in its final stages). So the council are treating this somewhat seriously, though it remains to be seen what will be the actual outcomes of that.
Next, it’s worth looking at the ongoing regeneration work. The work that’s been competed so far (on Cheapside and Merthyr Mawr Road) is a significant improvement on what was there before.There’s also the developments at Elder Yard and Elder Mews to compliment this. The only downside is that I’ve always questioned the economic returns from these projects. I doubt a single store or office will base itself in Bridgend on improved public realm alone.
There was recent news that the – soon to be vacated – library might become an arts venue. Bridgend (town) clearly lacks significant cultural venues (museum, art galleries, theatres, cinemas), so that’s one area I would point to as needing improvement. I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough made of Bridgend’s historical assets.
I’d repeat what Carwyn Jones said about a major department store, or some sort of “anchor”. The problem with that is trying to find somewhere attractive/viable enough for a developer. It could be the current police station site, once they move to a new custody centre on Bridgend Industrial Estate. It could be the Rhiw or Brackla Street Car Parks.
In the meantime, you’re probably going to have to look at knocking through adjacent smaller stores to create larger floorspaces – especially in the Rhiw Centre. If that happened, then Bridgend Market is probably going to have to move somewhere else. I’d prefer the Old Poundstretcher/Old Tesco on Market Street, but redeveloped to face the ARC building on Jacques Villeneuve de Wotsit Strasse (or whatever it’s called).
We need more full-time residents and office workers in the town centre. Some shops could be converted to residential use, or vacant buildings converted into apartments. There probably is/was demand for modern mid-rise apartments in Bridgend town centre itself, but that’s unlikely due to the economic climate.
There needs to be some sort of “venue”, slap bang in the middle of the town centre, to draw people in. That could be a Bridgend College building. It could be a theatre/concert venue (something more significant than Hobos). It could be a mid-market hotel, or it could even be something like a Port Talbot style Primary Care Resource Centre (replacing existing GPs and dental surgeries dotted around Bridgend).
I think political parties are barking up the wrong tree by trying to prop up the traditional “high street”. The very concept of the “high street”itself is going to have to change.
I think, ultimately, all Welsh town centres are going to have to become 24-hour a day venues – where people don’t just shop or go to get drunk, but live and work there too.